Flying at 10,000 feet over the Cook Strait with a fresh Himalayan tahr skin in her carry-on luggage, Sarah Thoroughgood was glowing after becoming the first Kiwi female to bag two alpine big game species with her bow and arrow in as many months. In the seven years since Sarah picked up a bow, over 800 animals have been on the sharp end of one of her arrows. The 22-year-old hunting fanatic has set her sights on being one of the most successful bow-hunters in the country. Sarah spoke to Mahurangi Matters editor George Driver about becoming a hunter.
I was born in Auckland. My parents were both brought up there, but they didn’t think it was a good place to raise kids, so they started looking for a property out of the city. They bought a vacant 20-hectare block atop the Kaipara Hills when I was three years old and my Dad started to build a house – 19 years later he’s still not finished! My 18-month-old sister and I lived in a caravan while he worked on it with Mum. I remember being terrified of lightning storms up on the hill, but I still think it was their best move. Exploring this property was when my adventurous side first started to show. It’s created the person I am. By the time I was about eight I was exploring the 105-hectare forest beside our house and I know every valley in that block now. I shot my first rabbit with an air rifle a couple of years later – that’s when hunting got me. None of my family hunted – now it’s a big part of what we do together. I love just being in the outdoors and the challenge of beating an animal in its own environment.
I was home schooled for 12 years, with my three sisters. My Dad has teachers in the family and he heard about how kids spend such a small portion of their day actually learning at school and he wasn’t impressed. He is an architectural draughtsman so is self-employed and my mother taught us based on a curriculum from the United States. It’s a lot more flexible and I really enjoyed it. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything – I think I’m better off. It meant if we sat down and focused and got the work done quickly we could still use the rest of the day. I remember one day an orca had stranded at Tawharanui. It was a school day, but Mum said ‘this will be a good learning experience’ and we helped pour water on its back until we got it floated and it survived – everyone else my age was stuck at school.
I think it’s also made us a lot more creative in our thinking. There was no such thing as peer pressure or conforming to other people’s ideas – we didn’t feel like we had to fit in and we could be ourselves. Hunting is quite a male dominated activity, but I’m not concerned if people judge me, that’s never bothered me.
A lot of people say we might have missed out socially, but we did swimming lessons, tennis and archery and had friends – a few friends, but close friends. It also meant we could do school work any time of the day, which was great when I got into hunting. Mum and Dad were quite firm with us, and this was back when they were allowed to dive you a smack. We grew up to ‘what they say goes’.
I stopped school when I was 17 and enrolled in a distance learning agricultural course and started working on Dean and Marjorie Blythen’s Hereford cattle farm and really enjoyed myself most of the time.
I got my first bow when I was 14. I was waiting until I was 16 and could get my gun licence, but a family friend, Dave Elmore, came to hunt near our land and stopped by with his bow. I remember giving it a look over and I knew what I wanted that Christmas. Within a year I had shot my first goats and rabbits and had broken two New Zealand field archery records.
I still do competitions, but I haven’t for a year or so. They don’t appeal to me like they used to. The ultimate challenge is going after an animal in its own environment. I recently looked at my bow tally – I’ve shot 359 goats, 354 possums and various other species, not in such high numbers. However, it’s not just about killing things. I’m not into trophy hunting. I think there’s something wrong with shooting an animal to up your ego. I shoot to bring pest numbers down or to eat them. About 80 per cent of the animals I shoot, I use the meat or the skins – I once won first, second and third prize in the NZ Bow Hunters Society’s best prepared skin competition.
Last summer I became the first female in the NZ Bow Hunters’ Society to shoot both a chamois and a tahr. I worked at a farm in Akaroa all winter. Spring is a good time to hunt tahr as they start coming down the mountains to feed on the new growth, and by the end of winter I was dying to get into the hills with my bow. I was on my own for a week in the tussock high country, at about 1000 metres above sea level. You have to be quite cautious, because there is no cellphone reception and the weather can change quickly. If you find yourself stuck in a whiteout it could get dicey. I spent the first two days watching the hillsides. Tahr are known as one of the most difficult animals to hunt. They can move through the mountains incredibly quickly, covering hundreds of metres of altitude in seconds. They also have a keen sense of smell, so you have to be mindful of the wind when you approach them.
After watching and stalking them for a week I knew where they would be at different times of day and I managed to get within six metres of a tahr, but I was looking over a rocky ledge and couldn’t get the angle to shoot my arrow. I knew where others were going to show up. I spent a few more hours sneaking up on them and shot a bull from 36 metres away. I feel at times like I’m quite an impatient person, but when it comes to hunting I’m the opposite. I can happily sit and watch animals for hours. The next day I was on a flight back home with the tahr skin in my carry-on luggage. I’ve nearly finished tanning it and it will soon be ready to be turned into a rug.
I was going to go back hunting near Nelson but I cut through tendons in my hand in January while trying to cut through the hock of a goat. I had to shoot with a rifle for six weeks, but I still shot 10 goats. It’s not enough of a challenge for me. I got quite bored with the gun. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do next. I’ve had a lot people me asking to look after their farms. I enjoy getting out on the quad bike on a cool morning and getting way out with a pack of dogs and mustering sheep. But when the weather is miserable or you are trying to put in a stubborn fence post, I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t want a job culling animals. I don’t think I could bear to shoot heaps of things and leave them to rot. The skins, the meat – it’s all worth something and it seems like a waste. The idea of guiding rich American tourists on hunting trips doesn’t appeal to me either. I do like to write and I recently had an article published in NZ Outdoor magazine and I’m thinking of writing a book about my adventures one day.
I still make money hunting. I just sold $400 worth of possum fur today, which took me two weeks to collect – I shot 14 possums last night! I also funded most of my archery gear by selling goat skins. Around here I’ve got permission to roam on thousands of acres. I can spread as far as I can walk. At the moment, I’m helping my sister with her Master Bow-hunter award. I’m flying to Southland to hunt with her for a while, so it’s a pretty good lifestyle.